Wednesday January 26, 2022

Big Tech and censorship

January 10, 2022

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press…” reads Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan. However, the article does not stop there. It goes on to say that this right is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the law in the “interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”

The government of Pakistan is often more interested in jumping straight to the ‘reasonable restrictions’ it can impose – without appreciating that there is first and foremost a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. It is no secret that, despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claims that the media has never been as free in the history of Pakistan, there has been a crackdown on dissenting voices.

Recently journalist Asad Ali Toor’s Twitter account was suspended. Asad is known to be a critical voice. He reports that he received an email from Twitter which stated that the government of Pakistan had reported his account. In the same email, Twitter claimed to have found no violation of community guidelines. Twitter then proceeded to suspend his account without notice or explanation. Even though his account was restored after several hours, questions must be raised. This incident serves as a striking reminder of Big Tech’s power over the content we consume and our access to information.

There is a serious need for Big Tech to be more open and transparent about how they moderate and regulate content. There is an equally serious need for the government of Pakistan to be more transparent about their requests to remove content.

Mark Zuckerberg told a Senate committee in 2018: “we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure that they’re used for good”. Who would define what ‘good’ is? The sheer magnitude of the power possessed by Big Tech can be gauged by the fact that Twitter and Facebook banned the then president of the United States.

Furthermore, the grave impact of censorship by Big Tech was seen when it effectively silenced Palestinians who took to social media to post about the violence and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Facebook attributed the removal of content posted by Palestinians to a ‘technical bug’ and Instagram and Twitter stated it was ‘suspended in error by automated systems’. What were these technical bugs and system errors? And why did they disproportionately and inexplicably target content posted by Palestinians? We will never know.

In the modern world, companies headed by Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerburg and newly appointed Parag Agrawal have become arbiters of the limitations of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Agrawal has said in the past that we must “focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed”. His appointment as Twitter CEO indicates that the level of censorship and the lack of transparency is only about to get worse. Companies headed by three men with their own political and personal biases will determine what the rest of the world is allowed to talk about.

In an attempt to deal with the problem, Mark Zuckerberg set up the Facebook Oversight Board (the “Board”) which is an independent body. There are numerous problems with the Board – the very first being that it is funded by Facebook. Emily Bell, professor at Columbia Journalism School, stated that it was the equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration being overseen by Boeing. The Board stated that when reaching the decision on Donald Trump’s ban, it asked Facebook to answer requests for information. Facebook refused to answer seven of these requests for information This shows that the ultimate power lies with Big Tech. It wants to cherry pick the information it provides to the Board.

Big Tech has also seen a rapid increase in government demands to take down content posted by journalists and new outlets. A transparency report published by Twitter in July 2021 revealed that India topped the list of government content removal requests. This was followed by Turkey, Pakistan and Russia. Once again, Pakistan is at the very top of the wrong kind of list.

In the second half of 2020, the Pakistan government made 52 requests to Twitter to remove content posted by journalists and news outlets. The government must reveal on what basis it has been requesting removal of content and the process of making these requests.

It may be that there are legitimate reasons to request content removal such as misinformation, incitement to hatred and promoting violence etc. However, how these requests are made and on what grounds they are made is unknown. How does the government determine that a particular post or account of a journalist or news outlet should be reported? Are these requests made after considering whether it constitutes a violation of Pakistan law?

Last year saw a prime-time journalist being indefinitely taken off air for speaking about an institution. It saw journalists and political opponents being included in an ‘Anti-State Trends’ report published by the Digital Media Wing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It saw speeches and interviews of former and current political leaders being muted and interrupted. It is not surprising that this government does not inspire much confidence when it comes to protecting free speech.

This would not be the first time a state used Big Tech to silence opposition. The Indian government asked Twitter to take down dozens of tweets which were critical of India’s handling of the pandemic. It is still unclear how posts questioning Modi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak violated local Indian law.

Even if just for a few hours, Twitter should not have been able to strip a journalist of his platform and his voice without explanation. There must be an increase in transparency by both the Pakistan government and Big Tech. Until then, the future holds arbitrary suspension of accounts and increased suppression of anti-government speech.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets @RidaHosain